Talk about impeaching President Trump is the wild-eyed expression of the most militantly anti-Trump Democrats, right?
Most media coverage of Republicans and impeachment has focused on “Freedom Caucus” blathering about impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for respecting the rule of law in a moment of mounting lawlessness. But that wingnut project is already being abandoned by the wingnuts.
A far better measure of the troubles facing the Trump administration is coming from more-responsible Republicans—elected officials and former elected officials—who have begun to discuss the prospect that this president will face an accountability moment. Some are even suggesting that it is time to remove the man who has disregarded not just the Constitution but the basic premises of a party that once accepted its duty to check and balance even its own presidents.
In May, when the volume was turned up on chatter about President Trump possibly firing special counsel Robert Mueller, Senator Lindsey Graham was asked if firing Mueller would might warrant impeachment. “Probably so, if he did it without cause,” replied Graham, who explained that: “I think what the president will have done is stopped an investigation [into] whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians, what effect the Russians had on the 2016 campaign. I can’t see it being anything other than a corrupt purpose. To stop [the] investigation without cause, I think, would be a constitutional crisis.”
Around the same time, The Washington Post asked Senator Jeff Flake if he thought firing Mueller was an impeachable offense. “To fire Mueller without cause, I don’t know if there is any other remedy left to the legislative branch,” said Flake, who added that: “If he fires [Mueller] without cause, how different is that from what Nixon did with the Saturday Night Massacre? He left before impeachment came, but that was the remedy then and that would be the remedy now.”
The prospect that the constitutional remedy might be applied was clearly on Flake’s mind. “We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel,” he tweeted on May 20. “Don’t create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing. Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact, through impeachment. No one wants that outcome. Mr. President, please don’t go there.”
But the president might go there. And even if he does not, he has certainly gone in the direction of other impeachable offenses. That has not caused House Republicans to abandon their obsequious Trumpism. But, outside of Washington, Republicans are starting to recognize that this presidency has gone horribly awry.
Texas State Representative Jason Villalba, a Republican from Dallas, has already seen enough to convince him that an accountability moment has arrived. Last week, following Trump’s obsequious meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Villalba penned a piece for The Texas Tribune headlined: “It’s time to impeach the president.”
“Our president has mocked and belittled our immigration laws, our intelligence agencies, our foreign policy strategy and even the American people. We have been called ‘stupid,’ ‘weak,’ ‘a joke’ and ‘pathetic,’ all by our own president,” wrote the Republican representative whose criticisms of Trump over the past several years undoubtedly played a role in his Republican primary defeat earlier this year.
Villalba says he has no regrets about objecting to the president’s wrongdoing. And he is arguing, as a proud Reagan Republican, that “if we do not stop this man now, today, over 500 days into his presidency, we will be equally culpable in what he has planned for our great nation. President Trump thinks you are a fool. He believes you will never abandon him. And he believes that that there is almost nothing that he can do that would cause you to abandon supporting him.”
To that end, writes the Texas Republican, “Donald J. Trump is no longer our leader. It is time to push him into the ash bin of history. Today, I ask you to impeach Trump.”
Villalba is an outlier among Republicans. But he is not alone. An April PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that 10 percent of Republicans nationwide would vote for a candidate who supports impeachment (as would 70 percent of Democrats).
A nationally-known Republican, former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, penned an op-ed piece in the Sunday Los Angeles Times that addressed her fellow Republicans with the message: “Trump is clearly unfit to remain in office.”
“He has a history of discrediting members of his own Cabinet and the agencies they lead. These are not the actions of someone who should be navigating delicate diplomatic discussions and setting foreign policy,” wrote Whitman, in a piece that focused on the president’s changing narratives regarding the Helsinki fiasco. “If the president did genuinely misspeak on Monday, it demonstrates his inability to articulate accurately U.S. foreign policy at the highest level, for the highest stakes. As the leader of the free world—as ridiculous as that title sounds when applied to Trump—his words matter. If he cannot take his place at a podium next to an adversarial foreign leader and stand up for America’s interests and principles, he should not be president.”
Whitman did not make a specific call for impeachment. Rather, she suggested to her fellow partisans that “We must put aside the GOP label, as hard as that may be, and demonstrate the leadership our country needs by calling on the president to step down.”
At the same time, the veteran Republican, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George W. Bush, outlined steps that Republicans should be taking to hold the president to account.
“Vocal opposition is expected from Democrats, but it is Republicans’ disapproval that will have the most sway on Capitol Hill and at the White House,” wrote Whitman. “Those members of the party in Congress who have stood up to the president should be commended. More must follow, with more than private talk and tepid tweets. Only bold leadership can put the United States back on a path that values freedom and democracy, and truly puts America first.”
Republicans have put America first before, most notably during the Watergate crisis, when a number of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee supported articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Nixon quit after top Republicans—including conservatives such as former Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona—told him that if he remained in office he would be held to account. Nixon was a bad player, to be sure. But Trump is worse, and a new generation of Republicans is called to check and balance him with the remedy that the founders outlined in the Constitution.
Most Republicans will continue to resist the constitutional remedy, for now. But the fact that the discussion of impeachment is beginning to cross partisan and ideological lines represents a slim ray of hope for the republic.
(John Nichols wrote the foreword to the upcoming book The Constitution Demands It: The Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump by Ron Fein, John Bonifaz, and Ben Clements. It will be published August 14.)